Family Friendly?

In the days leading up to Father’s Day this past Sunday, one could find a number of advertisements providing helpful suggestions on what to buy for Dad.  Home Depot, for example, suggested men really wanted to be fixing things and involved in construction—a task much easier accomplished with the help of their special “Man” gift card.  Just last month, diamond and flower companies were busy spending dollars encouraging families to give Mom the gifts she deserved.

These holidays remind many of us that the media presentations of family dynamics—and the women and men that make up these families—are often distorted. Educational institutions are increasingly teaching students to be critical in their consumption of many of the gendered images they see in the media. Miss Representation (2011), is but one recent example of a documentary aimed at increasing the awareness about the impacts of current media representations of men and women.

Whether it is stereotypes of men seeking power tools and women seeking diamonds or the hyper-sexualized images of males and females in the media, we need alternatives portraying men and women differently.  In this context, the idea of a family friendly outlet sounds promising.  As someone who listens occasionally to Christian music radio stations, I hear this claim often asserted, and acknowledge they do often offer positive messages.   That said, I often end up changing the dial, or turning off the radio completely, due to a lack of a family friendly encouraging message.

I have not analyzed the songs played on most Christian radio channels or those gracing the Billboard charts for their messages about families and gender.  Nor do I listen enough to pretend to know most of the messages emitted over their airwaves.  We do know that men dominate the industry. In an article available online penned about two years ago, Christianity Today brought attention to the fact that men performed 96% of the top 50 Christian songs of the decade (even as between one-fourth to one-third of Christian artists were women).

While a quick glance at a list of popular songs reveals that a majority do not describe different lived experiences for men and women, a significant amount do.  In one song, a woman is encouraged to find meaning in cleaning up Cheerios. Women are reminded that God is there when they are waiting up anxiously for their spouse to come home.  A girl struggling with her image is fulfilled by the notion that God sees her as beautiful.  I don’t object to the message in these songs. Caring and cleaning for one’s family can be an act of love.  Christian faith should speak into angst over appearances.  But these are not uniquely female issues.

Just as troublesome as the fact that only women are struggling with certain issues is that only men are struggling with others in the songs.  It is a man who is anxious about providing for his family. Men are encouraged to show more leadership in their families. And it is a man who is struggling to connect the dull moments in his work with the larger mission to which he has been called.  Taken together, the models of men and women portrayed in Christian songs promote a restrictive view of gendered roles.

When inspirational messages or short teaching messages about families are shared on the radio, messages are more direct and more normative.  Again, not all provide different teachings for men and women, but some do. One example that stands out is the notion that girls really want to be loved, and boys are competitive and want to succeed—a message even my six-year old sees as ridiculous. Such messages are not confined to Christian radio, but often asserted from pulpits as well.

As a sociologist who teaches on the family, I often remind my students that images of “traditional families” promoted by many evangelical churches (especially those that are largely white and middle/upper class) are not historically accurate. My students read a book written almost 20 years ago, Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War Between Traditionalism and Feminism by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. In this book, she does an excellent job critiquing the notion that our evangelical models of families are in fact traditional. Some students are often surprised by what they read, and find it challenging to consider the ways culture is embedded in proclaimed Biblical models (progressive and conservative alike).

My observations on Christian radio are not a call to re-ignite mommy (or daddy) wars, or to argue against songs about God drying tears of insecurity, or comforting a lonely mother.  Central to the Christian faith is the idea that being loved by God should be core to our identity.  But I do want to argue against the implicit notion that not being pretty, or not being a good enough mother, are the central issues women care about.  As a parent of three girls, I want more for my daughters.  I want them to hear about women seeking to follow God by taking risks, women fighting injustice in the world, or women wrestling with intellectual and vocational questions.

Family friendly radio claims seem to be based in the fact that they do not air songs with profanity; lyrics are not too sexy; commentators do not make crass jokes. On all accounts, I support these aims. But it’s not enough. A claim of being family friendly should encourage all kinds of families through building them up and building up the members that make them. It should encourage both women and men to lead their families, and encourage them to explore and use their God-given gifts and talents.

At the moment, I have yet to find a station claiming a family friendly label that I would certify. For my family, turning off the station is sometimes the best way forward.

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  • John Riley

    I agree. I much prefer to listen to clean mainstream stations than to “Christian” stations. I find them sort of depressing! They do not reaffirm my reasons for bringing Christ to the core of my life, and tend to be sappy and uninspiring.

    • Amy Reynolds

      John – You raise an excellent point that I did not give enough time to in the original post. The issue is far larger than a gendered issue! I’ve found that it is sometimes the mainstream songs that really challenge me in necessary ways.

  • I understand and share the concern, but I also am concerned that in the broader culture (at least in Seattle where I live) gender roles are presumed to be entirely malleable. “Man” and “woman” – and especially “father/mother” “husband/wife” – are seen to be primarily or entirely personal constructs.

    The difficulty, it seems to me, is parsing out what differences between the sexes are objectively natural, to provide a basis for evaluating the cultural and/or personal expressions of those differences. To add to the difficulty is the questions of whether – and what, and how we can know – there are differences that go beyond the obvious major biological differences.

    However, I would be very happy simply to see those major biological differences acknowledged as real, rather than as merely a stage for personal “expression”. At this point, it seems that conversation about how people and culture should express gender becomes impossible because people are not willing or able to agree on whether there are any real differences between man and woman.

    • Amy Reynolds


      Thanks for the feedback. You raise the important question of what it means to be female, and what it means to be male. Given that they are socially constructed ideas, it’s pretty hard to come up with an answer that is culturally influenced. As Christians, we try to understand out how God created men and women differently, but I fear that many in the church too often make that divide between them much larger than it is.

      While there are clearly aspects of our biological sex that make men and women different, too often biology seems to be cited to ‘prove’ differences it does not. I like the point you raise: it is hard to know the significance of many biological differences. For example, while women can give birth to babies and men can not, this does not mean that women are better nurturers, or more caring, from a biological perspective. They are expected to perform this role, have seen this role modeled, are often encouraged to develop this skill in childhood. Those all are social variables that end up explaining much of the perceived difference many claim exists between moms and dads.

      You’re right that parsing out what is a natural difference is no easy discussion to have in our culture. I would be interested in hearing more on what you would name as the core differences between men and women that should be acknowledged.

      • Tony

        In fact, Amy, cross-cultural anthropological data would support the thesis that nurture and child-rearing IS a distinctively feminine practice. And yes, the same data supports the claim that men really ARE more competitive. Social constructionism drivel offers no explanatory leverage, though it sounds inspiring and empowering to college sophomores in sociology class.

        The Christian model of personhood affirms ontological significance in both traditional feminine and masculine characteristics. It affirms equality between the sexes. And it affirms that there is considerable overlap between these characteristics in many cases. But… ideal types, gender distinctions make sense according to natural law, anthropological data, and a clear-eyed understanding of Scripture (see Paul’s writing about how marriage serves as a model of the beautiful relationship between members of the Trinity),

        • Amy Reynolds

          Tony –
          So I won’t address the differences in theological interpretation here — but let me just say that I disagree with your “clear-eyed” reading of scripture. Hermeneutical debates over what constitutes a Biblical understanding of gender and family abound; groups like Christians for Biblical Equality ( find Scripture affirming the equal giftedness of men and women, for example.

          As a social scientist, I take issue with the claim that that sociological or anthropological evidence supports the idea that nurture is biologically programmed in women, or that men are hard-wired to be competitive. Both fields recognize the important ways that cultural and social factors influence our gendered norms and roles.

          • Tony

            Of course there is variability in things like the expression of nurture or the manifestation of competetiveness; and of course men and women do both. But you still have to confront the anthropological fact that in every known society, women do the bulk (and in many cultures, ALL) primary care-giving of newborns. And men do the bulk of the warfare and the hunting of wild animals. The sociologist then of course responds “but all of this is socially constructed. If you were to teach these people another way, we’d have daddies cuddling babies and mommies scoping out raids on neighboring tribes.” But there is a reason we don’t actually observe these patterns — they go against the grain of natural law.

      • You raise the example of women being cast in nurturing roles. Biologically, there are certain kinds of nurture (gestation, breastfeeding, perhaps others that are not so obvious) that only women can give. However, (if I understand you correctly) you’re right that this does not necessarily imply that women are better at any and every kind of nurture. Certainly, there are examples of men who have been more emotionally or socially supportive of their children than some women have been. Similarly, one could argue that while men tend (biologically) to be larger and stronger, and that their higher levels of testosterone tend to increase competitiveness and aggression, this does not necessarily cast them in the role of “provider” or “defender”, and note that one can find some women who are stronger or more skilled in various ways than many men.

        That said, I’m not entirely sure that all gender differences are or should be based on biological differences. I approach the human person from a Thomistic perspective, which sees the body as the expression of the soul; that is, physical biology is an expression or manifestation of an immaterial form. This implies at least the possibility that there is something masculine or feminine about the soul itself. (Thomas himself never, to my knowledge, addressed this question directly; and it is by no means a certain conclusion from hylemorphic theory; but it is a distinct possibility.) If this is the case, then biological roles would simply be manifestations of spiritual realities. Social roles, to fully promote the good of the human person, would also conform to the reality of the spiritual nature and relationships of the sexes.

        This is at least two or three steps down a very speculative road. Like the mystery of God himself, in whose image we are made, I expect we can explore the relationship of the sexes endlessly without ever reaching the end. The only thing I’m 100% certain of is that, both biologically and socially, man and woman make no sense in isolation from one another. They are different, but their differences point toward one another. Problems arise when the differences are either exaggerated, or ignored.

        • Tony

          Well said, sir.

  • Brad

    If I use biological “fact” to buttress my theological arguments concerning what correct behavior is, won’t I run into trouble when folk’s biological nature drives them to do stuff I know Providence declares immoral?

    • Tony

      That’s exactly why you need a strong grasp of natural law — and an understanding of (wo)man created in the image of God (imagio deo), yet fallen and in need of grace. See Thomas Aquinas for the class statement on these issues, but also Calvin, Barth, and especially C.S. Lewis for more winsome discussion.

      Simple binaries are not sufficient (e.g., biological determinism, social constructionism). A well-reasoned natural law position asserts that God’s good intentionality is woven into Creation, but these general truths are of course (a) refracted by culture (and human creativity, another imprint of the Divine) and (b) tainted to some degree by sin (e.g., selfish motives, self-destructive tendencies).

      • Brad

        So when I identify biological influences on people’s behavior that correspond to what I know to be God’s plan for human beings, biology backs me up. When biological predispositions lead to behavior I know to be unacceptable, what I’m seeing is the “fallen” element.

  • Amy Reynolds

    Comments are now closed

  • Holly

    It’s too bad you closed the comments, Amy – I think it’s a great conversation!

    Here’s my take, particularly the part about mothers cleaning up cheerios:

    I live with seven males. (My husband, six sons, and three daughters.)

    The males would never think to clean up the cheerios. 🙂

    Also – I’m just not big on assigned gender roles – they don’t mean that much to me. Being female isn’t even that big of a deal to me – I’m a Christian first, a human being second, then my roles seem to fit in around that. Even wife isn’t a big definer – I’m “one” with my husband. We are best friends, a team, people who just live, work, eat, sleep, take care of what needs done – together. I’m happy to do yard work or get the mower running; he comes home from 13 hour days at work and does laundry for me.

    But I can’t deny after mothering for 20 years, thru nine pregnancies and oh, about 18 years of breastfeeding, that I am psychologically, emotionally, physically and spiritually bound to my children in ways that my husband (who is the most amazing friend, father, husband, person, man….) is not. I can even tell when my baby is crying and wants to nurse (not biologically needs to nurse, not hunger. The milk lets down in response to a cry, a psychological need from the baby…maybe too much TMI but it is interesting, yes?) when I am away from home and nowhere near my baby. I guess I don’t even know how to explain some of the biological nurturance which I am convinced exists from my fairly deep experience unless it is related to gender – it certainly isn’t a societal construct in middle America these days.

    And yes….some of the songs encouraging males to take more leadership in their homes and to “protect” their wife get to me too. 🙂 But I still can’t throw out what I perceive to be genuine biological differences which seem to be organic and systemic rather than socially constructed.